Contributor Conversations: Chelsea Werner-Jatzke interviews Charles Rafferty
Chelsea Werner-Jatzke interviews Charles Rafferty (contributor to The Conium Review: Vol. 2, No. 2). Charles is the author of ten poetry collections, most recently The Unleashable Dog (Steel Toe Books, 2014), and he’s the author of the short story collection, Saturday Night at Magellan’s (Fomite Press, 2013).
[Chelsea Werner-Jatzke]: There’s a sentence in your poem, “The Man in Charge of Darkness”: “He remembered/ when he first wanted the job—after breaking/ his last flashlight in the belly of a cave”. The line, “his last flashlight in the belly of the cave” describes the effect of your flash fiction, to me. The reader only sees what the narrator shed light on. Can you talk about focus in your fiction?
[Charles Rafferty]: My stories tend toward the tiny. I’m drawn to the pivoting moments in my characters’ lives. I like considering the moments that immediately precede or follow a great triumph or disaster. The farther away from that moment I get, the less interested I become.
[CWJ]: Reading Saturday Night at Magellan’s and The Unleashable Dog back to back, I was struck by the number of times you use the word “contrail.” Can you talk about what it is about that word that draws you to it? How that happens with language?
[CR]: How funny! I hadn’t even realized I was using that word repeatedly. It’s a very precise word–it reminds me how fortunate we are to have a word for this particular mark across the sky. It’s not especially beautiful sounding, but it starts off crisp and becomes diffuse. It happens while we’re not paying attention, like the stars and the bees. I do get on “word jags” every now and then for reasons I don’t think are important to try to understand. Just this morning I was alarmed to find four instances of “rafters” in the story I was working on. The story is too tiny to let all of them stay.
[CWJ]: I’d love to know more about how you organized Saturday Night at Magellan’s. A story like “My Yoga Pants, My Executioner” marks a shift from the first two thirds of the collection.
[CR]: Saturday Night at Magellan’s is organized into three large blocks. The first group of stories centers around a mature character, someone often in their forties, someone like me. The second group centers on characters in their teens, someone like I used to be. The third group consists of a bunch of crazy stories that didn’t quite fit into the other two groups. They tend to be wilder or sillier and sometimes surreal.
I began writing stories in 2009, so many of the stories in Magellan’s were me consciously trying on different voices, different approaches. That last section of Magellan’s is where I put all the outliers. I knew I’d never create enough stories similar to “My Yoga Pants, My Executioner,” but I didn’t want that fact to preclude me from collecting it into the book.
When I read a book of poems or stories by someone else, I almost never start with the first piece and read the book in order. I’ll flip through to whatever catches my eye, or I’ll choose something based on how much time I have available. So I tend to have a “good enough” attitude toward organization. As long as it seems logical, I don’t expend too much energy on it.
[CWJ]: I’m hoping you can discuss the point at which you know if something is poetry or prose. This question could also be phrased as: Would you describe your writing as “an armload of bees/ apparently happy to assume the shape/ of whatever box” (“The Man Laments the Bees That Didn’t Sting”)…?
[CR]: In many cases, I don’t see any distinction at all between poetry and fiction. As an example, the story “Rio de Janeiro” was originally written for a 78-word fiction contest Esquire was running (it didn’t win), but I ended up publishing it at The Prose-Poem Project. Then, because it seemed to fit, I included it in my book of short fiction, Saturday Night at Magellan’s.
All this being said, there are certain things that push me toward fiction–the need to change scenes, the presence of dialogue, the presence of more than one character. This last point is probably most important. For a story to work, I feel I have to have characters bump up against each other. The match needs something to strike against.